IceRays play with the biggest heart on ice
Joe Chitwood moved from the snowy north in Indiana to sunny, hot South Texas to earn a NCAA college scholarship — on the ice. The 19-year-old forward for the Corpus Christi IceRays is one of 20 players vying to skate their way from high school to college sports in Junior League Hockey in the Coastal Bend.
Hockey is the only collegiate sport with an intermediate level that pits young teams against each other in professional competition before both fans and scouts.
“I hope to get a scholarship in the next few months,” said Chitwood, who serves as team captain. “I love the opportunity that Corpus Christi has offered me. I love interacting with the fans during the game and getting to meet them during fan skates after the games.”
Corpus Christi fans are like no other, according to Chitwood and his coach, John Becanic, who moved to the Texas Gulf Coast from Canada a year ago. The team draws the largest, fastest-growing audience of any of the other 24 teams in the league. As the main tenant in the American Bank Center, the IceRays draw more than 3,000 people a game, which adds up to more than 100,000 attendees each year.
“The fans are passionate here,” Becanic said. “This team and franchise has never won a championship, but the fan base continues to grow. Their loyalty and love for the sport and the athletes is what makes them so special.”
Both Chitwood and Becanic attribute a South Texas taste for hockey to the popularity of football, another aggressive sport with a lot of action.
“Hockey has the physical element of football but with a different kind of excitement,” Chitwood said. “People like to watch guys flying in an environment they are not used to. It’s kind of weird and wacky and makes it intriguing.”
Fan’s also love the show around the game, which Becanic attributes to team Vice President and General Manager Pat Dunn. Dunn has been involved with the team its entire 17-year stint in Corpus Christi — the longest tenure of any sport in the city.
Yes, hockey has survived and even thrived in the Sparkling (hot!) City by the Sea for almost two decades. Becanic credits that longevity to the game’s excitement, the players’ enthusiasm and the entertainment on game day.
Dunn added that it has a lot to do with the team’s involvement in the community.
“We are here to be good community partners,” Dunn said. “We take pride in what we do.”
And what they do goes way beyond the team’s action on the ice.
“Our players are out in the community a lot,” Becanic said. “In the mornings, they are out cooking at charities, working with people and performing community service.”
The team also gives back on the rink. Dunn becomes particularly animated when describing how the team donates proceeds from many of its games to different charities. The team raised $15,000 in one night for a young cancer victim and $20,000 for Pink in the Rink, a breast cancer research fundraiser.
The hockey organization hires locally, including clients from Lighthouse for the Blind, who work in the office. The team recently taught 12 blind kids to skate.
“It was an eight-week process with an amazing payoff,” Dunn said. “As we announced our team coming out of the tunnel with the fog and strobe lights, we announced all 12 of those kids one by one, including one little 5-year-old girl who came out right behind those big players. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
The team’s commitment to the community is not a gimmick for the IceRays, which is a for-profit business that has seen its ups and downs. One down almost closed the team several years ago, but its heart and soul basically brought it back to life.
The team’s biggest fan, a young man named Cassidy Lange who has cerebral palsy, became so distraught when he heard the IceRays might go out of business that he became depressed and ill. He attended the IceRay’s very first game as a 6-year-old. He knew every player and his stats. He had worked as an intern with the staff and was a regular around the office. Doctors said he was suffering from the loss of something important in his life: his relationship with the IceRays.
In a made-for-the-movies move, his father bought the team for Lange as a high school graduation present. Now a senior in college, Lange spends most days with the team and staff.
“He ended up saving hockey in Corpus Christi,” Dunn said. “We changed leagues, brought on some up-and-coming guys and revived the team. We worked hard and got it back in the running. We’ll be here as long as Cassidy wants us to be.”
Like many of the people associated with the IceRays, Dunn has hockey in his blood. His father worked for the Vancouver Canucks. Dunn played on the junior level before signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the National Hockey League. He stayed in the Toronto minor leagues a few years, then spent 13 years playing for teams in Europe. He played in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, before going into coaching.
“I think I wasn’t made to coach,” he said. “I coached with my heart more than my head. You’ve got to be tough and stay tough to coach.”
Next stop in his career: management of a team with the biggest heart on the ice. That caring, giving attitude runs through the spirit of the whole franchise from upper management to the players who billet with families in the area during the season. Chitwood lives with a family on the island and helps the kids with homework and playtime.
“I love them like my own brothers and sisters,” he said. “It makes me feel like I’m at home with my siblings. I really appreciate the way they have taken me in and treated me so well.”
He pays back the favor by playing hard on the ice and volunteering in the community. He also promotes his sport, encouraging people who have never seen the game to come and experience it.
“You’re going to see something you’ve never seen before,” Chitwood said. “It has the physicality of football, the up-and-down speed of soccer and basketball and the fighting of boxing all in one. You’re going to want to come back and see it over and over again.”
Which must be true as the IceRays’ fan base continues to grow during its September-to-March regular season. Playoffs go to mid-May, so there’s plenty of opportunity to catch a hockey game by the beach in Corpus Christi.
“You can have a good time for very little money,” Dunn said. “Bring the family. Rarely does someone dislike it once they’ve seen a game live. The biggest compliment we get is people who say they don’t know the rules, but it doesn’t matter. They love the non-stop action.”
For tickets to the IceRays, which range in price from $9 to $22, visit goicerays.com or ticketmaster.com. You can also call 361-814-7825.
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